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The ins and outs of Somerville supermarkets

Posted by Marcia Dick  November 27, 2009 11:36 AM

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What's Fage, you ask? Keep reading.

Sure there's family and time off, but for many of us the holidays boil down to one key ingredient: food. Which means shopping. Supermarket lovers know that not all purveyors of towering cans of discounted pumpkin are alike - not even two branches of the same store. How to pick your poison? Though lacking an upscale Trader Joe's or Whole Paycheck, Somerville nonetheless offers a range of shopping options. Here’s our users' guide to the supermarkets of Somerville.

A word: Traditional supermarket reviews compare the cost of a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and a dozen eggs. However, it’s 2009. So while we left in the good ol' reliable milk (Hood, for consistency's sake), we subbed in two items that have become staples for a variety of ethnic/community groups: mangos and Greek yogurt.

Johnnie's Foodmaster
45 Beacon St.
Two words: wine and carpet. Yes, a supermarket with an area rug. Sometimes you just have to wonder what people might be thinking. But thank God they did, because the matted fabric gives a special touch to an ordinary smallish supermarket in Inman Square with a somewhat limited selection (three brands of Greek yogurt). Just as the thrill of the entry wears off, hey! You run smack-dab into the sizable wine and beer section. You don't even need to buy the booze separately after you check out. Now we’re talking.
Prices: gallon Hood milk $3.29, mango $1.69, tub of Fage $4.69.
Convenience: Can you say Inman Square?
You wouldn't expect: A full complement of Goya products.
Purpose: Carlo Rossi, $3.50/liter. One slug for the stewpot, one for the cook.

Reliable Market
45 Union Square
If the overpowering odor of fermented fish in this Korean-owned market doesn’t boggle the average person’s brain, the mystery produce will. But who cares with a store that has a dozen brands of miso, a 15-foot refrigerator case of kimchi and soju in a box? The nose adjusts. Stock up on items that span the varying Asian cultures: dry azuki beans, huge sacks of rice, random greens, millet, and those frozen rice-dough-wrapped ice cream balls that look faintly, um, X-rated ... plus dishware and candy. All set to the dulcet strains of Magic 106.7. America is grand.
Price: mango $1.19.
Convenience: On bus routes; parking in back. Hours aren't great.
You wouldn't expect: They carry Spam.
Purpose: Here, soba noodle soba noodle soba noodle

Market Basket (a.k.a. DeMoula's)
400 Somerville Ave.
This packed place requires - and rewards - advanced crowd-management skills, both in the parking lot and the aisles. (If it's raining, make sure you don't slip on the sawdust the managers layer in the entryway.) Experienced MB shoppers highly recommend using a basket, though most patrons have one or even two carts piled high. Why bother? The crazy-low prices and loads of fresh-looking produce. Limited organics and only three brands of Greek yogurt, but there's an entire Goya aisle, plus pork feet cheek-by-jowl with Rachael Ray stock (2 for $4). We once saw a 6-foot-tall transgendered woman in short-shorts walking down the aisle with her girlfriend. Once the road rage subsides, you’ll be overwhelmed with love for humanity. Or, you know, more road rage.
Prices: Hood $2.89, mango 79¢, Fage $3.99. This! is what we’re talking about.
Convenience: On bus routes. Closes on the early side (9 p.m. Monday - Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday).
You wouldn't expect: Has scored highly on health reports in the past. Purpose: Preparing for hurricane season; panic attack desensitization therapy.

Shaw's (Cambridge)
49 White St., Cambridge
After you deal with the mobbed weekend parking lot, you walk in to see a wall of shiny apples: Soothing. Ordered. Shaw's is an oasis of calm - a clean, well-lit space even when busy. The place even smells fresh. It has all the modern-day amenities: wide aisles, bakery, cheese section, self-checkout lanes. The produce section is heavy on packaged salads and stir-fry veg; the dairy wall features six(!) brands of Greek yogurt, noticeably heavy on the fat-free. Best of all, it's open 24 hours. But you pay for all that convenience: a tub of Fage costs a mind-boggling $6.49.
Prices: Hood $4.39, mango $1.59, Fage $6.49
Convenience: Right on the Red Line, open 24 hours.
You wouldn't expect: The liquor store in the plaza is really quite good.
Purpose: Late-night ice cream runs; civilized shopping relaxation (until you see the bill).

Star Market
275 Beacon St.
Why does this place exist? Barely half a mile from its corporate partner Shaw's, Star offers the same prices in an old-fashioned, largely empty room. It goes for breadth not depth, meaning you can count the cups of soy yogurt and see wide expanses of shelf in between. There are five brands of Greek yogurt if you count the single cup of Cabot's. Do that many people live two blocks away and really want $2.99 pomelos?
Prices: Hood $4.39, mango (organic only, no conventional) $2.49, Fage $6.49.
Convenience: Slightly longer walk from the Red Line than Shaw's.
You wouldn't expect: See first sentence.
Purpose: Uh, you got me.

Johnnie's Foodmaster
105 Alewife Brook Parkway
Everything in this store on the Arlington line looks a little dated, from the greenish, dim fluorescents that make the produce look a bit dingy and wilted, to the soundtrack ("Roll with It, Baby''), to the placards that advertise sausages for your summer barbecue, to the slightly darkened meat, to the Ida Mae Fruited Gelatine, to the older woman in an Irish fisherman's cardigan choosing buns. The deli counter has lots of meat and Elmo whoopee pies. The flower truck out in the parking lot has been there, the co-owner says, forever and a day.
Prices: Hood milk $3.29, mango, I think $1.79 (forgot to write it down), Fage $4.69.
Convenience: Only game in Teele Square; close to Tufts and Route 2.
You wouldn't expect: Huge tubs of Fage, $7.29 for 35.3 ounces.
Purpose: You want mums, beer, and mummy with your groceries.

Star Market (defunct)
299 Broadway
Winter Hill used to have its own supermarket. As with the Foodmasters on this list, location was the primary appeal, resident/writer Georgy Cohen recalled in an e-mail. The store was "pretty dingy" but "fine for my basic needs," with "a lot of character, both in terms of the staff and the customers." Blogging on boston.com, Rona Fischman complained about the prices. Well, it's gone now, drawing opprobrium from convenience-loving neighbors. The building has remained vacant for nearly two years, though the city put a moratorium on developing it in hopes of attracting another grocer. Rumors have flown that Trader Joe's might move in, but rumors also say the building's too small for a modern-day store. A store like ...

Super Stop 'n' Shop
775 McGrath Highway
Emphasis on the "super." Where the Broadway Foodmaster has a flower truck, SSnS has an entire flower section. This suburban-style store has so many amenities - pharmacy, Dunks kiosk, Citizen’s Bank with tellers- that it can be hard to find the food. Signs around the ceiling advertise, breathlessly, "fresh & ripe," "savory & tender." The bright produce section has fat ginger and cucumbers, and Brussels sprouts on the stalk, pumped with all the juice the modern American agriculture system has to offer. Customers have carts, not baskets. Prices are reasonable, though with all this selection, you'd expect more than three kinds of Greek yogurt.
Prices: Hood milk $3.39, mango 99¢ with card (down from 2 for $3), Fage $4.49.
Convenience: Great for drivers on 28 and 93, less great for residents: There's no vehicle access from East Somerville streets.
You wouldn't expect: Rob Thomas on the sound system
Purpose: To feed your family this week, or to pick something up - flowers? stinky candles? - on your way to see friends in Quincy.

Tony's Foodland
104 Broadway
SSnS doesn't connect to the neighborhood? Foodland has notices for city meetings on the front window. This gaily painted market specializes in Latin American groceries, mainly Brazilian and Salvadoran. Think coconut cookies, chicharrones, plantain chips, frozen green mangoes, housemade sausage. The spice racks offer small bags of dried hibiscus flowers. Delicious. However, the fresh mangoes were the most expensive anywhere, supporting the theory that specialty stores sometimes overprice staples.
Price: mango $1.99.
Convenience: On East Somerville's main drag, a few minutes' walk from the Orange Line.
You wouldn't expect: Heinz-brand soy sauce.
Purpose: MEAT.

Happy eating to all, and to all a good Saturday-morning workout.

Contact Danielle at somervillescene@gmail.com.

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